Living in the Past
Market research relies heavily on human memory. Attempting to measure recall about what respondents thought or felt about a product or service is a standard approach for market researchers.
Surveys often consist of long lists of memory tests. So many surveys contain phrases like, “Thinking about the last time you used XXX”? And of course, focus groups always rely on the subjective recall of emotional states.
The assumption underpinning the standard market research operating procedure of directed recall is that we can reach into our experiences and retrieve complex information.
But is that true? Can respondents accurately retrieve memories and emotional states in response to a survey questionnaire?
Most market researchers give little to no thought to their reliance on recall. They fail to challenge themselves to better understand respondents, and in so doing they fail their clients and themselves.
Market research lives in its respondents’ past. The problem is that the current market research modus operandi of asking respondents to recall memories and emotions may be faulty at its core.
Memory is increasingly being understood by academicians as fluid rather than a concrete object that can be picked up and read at will.
The dominant theory of memory for many years has been so-called “working memory”, with researchers such as Alan Baddeley, Graham Hitch and Nelson Cowan producing a robust literature. These researchers concentrated on the cognitive aspects of memory, acoustic and visual buffering systems, episodic memory formation processes, and, finally, longer term memory processes.
In parallel, neuropsychologists and neurophysiologists searched for the “holy grail” of memory research, identifying what was known as the “engram“ – the physical imprint that a memory must somehow make on the brain. More recent work seems to be getting researchers closer to understanding the physiological nature of memory.
Almost all of this is resolutely ignored by market researchers.
Researchers tend to see memory as a concrete object, something that can be brought back and returned to memory. It can be lost like an object too. When we simply can’t recall things, we say we have lost the memory, as if we possessed a thing such as a key.
In Wired Magazine’s March 2012 issue, Jonah Lehrer provides an interesting summary of recent research on memory, focusing on the work of Karim Nader at McGill University in Canada.
Research on alleviating the terrible symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has begun to challenge the idea that memory is like a set of photographs we can access, look at, and put away again in the same condition.
PTSD can be regarded as a super-strong memory. A memory has been imprinted so powerfully that it cannot seem to fade away, as many memories do over time. PTSD is a breakdown in forgetting.
Nader’s research overturns the idea that memory is static, that it is a concrete object that can be read repeatedly in the same way. He found that the process of recall can cause the memory to be rewritten, so that we constantly modify memories as we recall them. Hence there is hope for victims of PTSD.
There is no engram.
Memory is not static; it can be amended by the conditions under which we recall it. Recall is rewriting memory.
The ability for us to forget is vital for us to function in our lives. As the famous Russian psychologist Alexander Luria documented in his book “The Mind of a Mnemonist,” remembering everything can be crippling for someone. The man in Luria’s book, called “S”, was not able to forget. He lived a confusing, cluttered life. Everything he did or heard brought back a flood of memories and feelings from the past.
Without forgetting we can’t have new experiences. We have to forget: we have to forget childhood, we have to forget most of what we do to remain able to function in the future.
The necessity of forgetting is itself forgotten by market research. There is a pervasive idea that respondents actually can remember all these subtle impressions and emotions and then record them on a 11 point scale days or weeks after an event.
The truth is, mostly, they can’t. We have to forget most of what we experience. Trips to the mall or the supermarket are low on the list of things we have to remember because, mostly, they don’t matter. What grades your child got last week are a much higher priority.
The obvious problem is that market research needs those impressions that are forgotten. While we may not be able articulate with any accuracy what we have felt, the emotional residue will influence behavior in the future.
The core dogma of recall has to be rejected. The problem becomes: what will replace it ?
We can’t have interviewers follow all of our panelists or respondents around and constantly monitor what they do in the hope of catching those fleeting moments of emotion about products or services that they experience. Those memories of emotions are soon lost, washed away in the stream of consciousness that allows us to function from day to day.
The Point of Emotion
It’s not often that new technology is really a revolution. Too often, vendors hype technology way beyond its boundaries.
However, smartphones just may deserve the hype. The smartphones that 65% of the US population now carry around with them have astounding processing power and connectivity. This power is being harnessed to give us a view of the consumer which is radically different from anything we have seen before.
Consumers are also using smartphones in various settings that were heretofore unheard of: on the toilet, while waiting in line for coffee, in transit, and just about anywhere there is idle time for the consumer. Smartphones and their addictive connectivity have users carrying these devices every waking moment in their lives.
Our need to be connected drives this smartphone ubiquity. This also presents an opportunity for research and feedback to live “in the moment” – in real time, not in recall time.
We call this the Point of Emotion (POE).
The Point of Emotion is the point in time when a consumer is using a product – drinking coffee, using toothpaste to brush their teeth. Technology allows us to capture emotions as they happen.
There will be many technologies that will allow us to leverage the Point of Emotion, the current technology we see as the most significant is QR codes.
Smartphones with QR code embedded feedback systems allow us to capture four critical pieces of paradata:
- Timestamp – When the emotion was experienced.
- Location – Almost all smartphones have GPS or wifi-enabled location triangulation.
- Context – Embedded QR codes give granular context about products.
- Unique Device ID – Unique identifers enable linking of data from different temporal phases.
Researchers, rejoice! We no longer have to rely on recall to capture the customer’s viewpoint.
The Point of Emotion is closer than ever. It’s for this reason that mobile technology is truly a revolutionary force in market research. There are millions of people carrying around technology that gives us a window into their lives. All we have to do is shed our own biases and make of use of what’s right in front of our eyes.